“Now, switch off your headlights,” our guide whispers to the group. The first one to make a noise or turn their torch back on is threatened with the task of singing a Nickleback song to the group.
Our guide is the last to turn his headtorch off, and immediately, we’re plunged into darkness. It’s the kind of darkness that few people will ever experience.
I stretch one of my hands out in front of my face, the one not being clutched by my girlfriend, Georgia. I see nothing. I turn to look at her, and even though she is only centimeters away from me, I see nothing. Finally, I bring my hand within millimeters of my eyes, but still, nothing.
After a few moments, one of the members of our group makes a noise, and a headtorch is turned on. As quickly as we entered it, we leave the engulfing darkness.
It’s taken us six kilometres of jungle trekking and one kilometres of swimming under giant stalactites to reach this point. It’s a moment that both Georgia and I will never forget.
The Tu Lan cave system, discovered less than 30 years ago, is one of the largest cave systems in the world, and by far the most spectacular. Found just outside the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Quang Binh, Vietnam, the system consists of ten caves. Most who visit call it an otherworldly paradise, but the trek to reach it isn’t easy.
The Tu Lan cave system: Vietnam’s hidden gem
Quang Binh is located in the middle of Vietnam, and there are only two ways to get there: either by an overnight bus, locally known as the ‘death bus’, or a slightly more sensible overnight train journey. The train option is not only safer, but also far more scenic.
From Quang Binh, it’s a long drive to Phong Nha, where the headquarters of Oxalis, the sole licensed tour operators for the Tu Lan cave system, are located.
These ‘headquarters’ consist of a few sparsely placed and dilapidated buildings, including a so-called hotel. While located in one of the poorest regions of Vietnam, I find it impossible not to rank Phong Nha as one of the best places I’ve spent a night, if only because of the spectacular 5am sunset that visitors are treated to, pre-trek.
We began our trek four hours later in the minority village of Tan Hoa, after even more driving and a safety briefing. Looming limestone mountains surrounded us as we began to walk through fields of giant buffalo and rapidly growing peanut and corn crops. After crossing a winding river, we walked up a rocky slope and descended into a wild jungle valley, with a glimpse of our very first cave, Hung Ton, in the distance.
The sight of the cave piqued the interest of our exhausted group, and kept us moving until we reached it for lunch. I use the word ‘lunch’ loosely, as our spread consisted primarily of Oreo cookies, mouth-watering coconut candies, and a few lonely bananas.
After a few more hours of bushwhacking, scrambling up rock faces, and tripping over giant roots, we finally made it to the entrance of Tu Lan cave, our campsite for the night. It was truly a sight to behold: a giant cave mouth with a gushing waterfall overhead, almost spitting out the winding river that gave it life.
We rested briefly for a mid-afternoon snack, and then our guide instructed us to follow him in the opposite direction. The group’s disappointment was palpable.
Only fifty meters later, we found ourselves in front of yet another spectacular river cave. Following our guide into the water, we swam towards the cave’s entrance, looking up in awe at the magnificent stalactites and enormous crystals above us as they reflected the afternoon light. We spent twenty minutes just floating in the water, silenced by the beauty around us.
When we’d finally had our fill, we were treated to a festive evening with our guides and porters, made even better by the homemade rice wine they brought along. Woozy from the wine and exhausted from the trek, we went to sleep in hammocks strung between the trees under thousands of impossibly bright stars, excited for the adventures that still lay ahead.
The next morning, we woke early and left hurriedly. After a short walk and rocky scramble, we plunged into the cold, crisp water of Tu Lan cave, buzzing with anticipation. We spent over thirty minutes floating deeper into the darkness and eventually made it to a dry ledge. With bats overhead and giant spiders scuttling between our feet, we scrambled out and walked for a further 10 minutes. With a quick gesture from our guide, we all quietly sat down and settled into a circle. “Now, switch off your headlights,”…
Featured image: Peanut Trees – Tan Hoa minority village.